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Lord Bach: My Lords, as it happens, I met the director yesterday and, although I do not want to quote him out of turn, I am pretty sure that he will take any decision that needs to be taken in a case of this kind.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that there is a faint irony in that, in the case of Purdy, the director through his learned counsel argued most strongly against the issuing of any specific guidelines? Furthermore, does the Minister agree that central to the whole question of the exercise of formal criteria in relation to prosecution is a rigorous and wide-searching inquiry of investigation into each individual case? In those circumstances, will additional personnel with adequate expertise and experience, be they in the police service or in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, be appointed to carry out this massive task?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I cannot say that that will necessarily happen, although I can say that the director has done what he was asked to do by the House of Lords Judicial Committee-that is, to draw up guidelines both for and against prosecution. He did that within two months of the judgment of the House of Lords Judicial Committee and he is to be applauded for doing so.
The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, do Her Majesty's Government agree that, in drawing up the guidelines for the application of the law prohibiting assisted suicide, the Director of Public Prosecutions must take care not to be seen to condone assisted suicide or to produce a set of rules for breaking the rules?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I am quite sure that the director is aware of that. Of course, it is not for him to change the law-not that he has any intention of doing so-nor can he give any prospective immunity from prosecution. He has merely drawn up these guidelines to clarify the factors for and against prosecution, precisely as he was asked to do as a result of the judgment in the Purdy case.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the most helpful things in the interim policy is the attempt to draw a distinction between what one might describe as compassionate assistance and malicious assistance, although that would clearly be difficult to prove in a prosecution case? Does my noble friend agree that this might be precisely an area where the kind of independent inquiry suggested by my noble friend who asked the Question would be very useful?
Lord Bach: My Lords, that area could indeed be something that an inquiry could look at but there are many other areas in the arguments both for and against prosecution that any such inquiry would want to look into. However, I shall take back the point that there should be such an inquiry.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that this is not just a question of rules against breaking the rules but a question of flexibility in the judgment of someone in charge of the whole situation? On this occasion, the attitude of the Government appears to be totally correct.
Lord Davies of Oldham: HMRC will treat as delivered on time any paper tax return for 2008-09 delivered by hand to an HMRC office by Monday 2 November. HMRC will also accept the proposed postal strike as a reasonable excuse for failing to file by the 31 October deadline but customers will need to be able to show that they posted their returns in good time. If they can do this, they will not have to pay a filing penalty.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I declare an interest as one of the many thousands who will be filing a paper return. From what the Minister has said, if the counter services are not on strike, it will be possible to get a certificate of posting, which is a free service, and that that will be accepted as proof of posting in time. What about those people who have already posted their returns and are simply not getting anywhere? When they phone up, they are told that their return has not been received. I am still waiting for post dating from early September which I have not received.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Baroness is certainly right in her first contention that returns can be accepted in the offices, as I have indicated, up to Monday 2 November. On the other point about postal services I have indicated that, where an individual is able to establish that the return was posted in good time, the Inland Revenue will certainly take account of that fact and the individual will not be subject to any penalty. However, the House will recognise that the issue is governed by statute and therefore the degree of flexibility for the Inland Revenue is limited.
Lord Newby: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the problem raised by the noble Baroness does not apply only to income tax returns? For example, people paying credit card bills by post could well find that their payment arrives late and that they are stung for a huge penalty by being even a day or two late
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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I always assume that these exchanges in the House are communicated to the whole of the population, so the advice has already been tendered. The noble Lord will recognise the obvious point that, so far as HMRC is concerned, the Government have the most direct responsibility; we have indicated how we expect HMRC to discharge that responsibility. As regards credit cards, those are private transactions. We will look at advice but the noble Lord will be all too well aware that that is a matter between the private citizen and the private company concerned.
Baroness Noakes: My Lords, the Minister replied in terms of individuals filing paper tax returns. Can he also comment in the context of VAT returns, as many small businesses still submit their VAT returns on paper?
Lord Davies of Oldham: Well, that is against a background of Parliament making it absolutely clear that taxpayers have an obligation to make their returns on time. That is statute; that is the law which this House and the other place have established. The Inland Revenue is obliged to work against that background.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, as we have time on our side, will the Minister accept that my late noble kinsman and my late noble relative on their mutual honeymoon found a sub-post office in rural Wales where a notice in the window said: "Letters for the 5.30 post must be posted by six o'clock at the very latest"?
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, further to my supplementary question, in answer to which the Minister said that people would be able to hand-deliver these items, what publicity will he give so people know where the local centres for hand-delivery are? Many people doing paper returns are not computer-literate and do not have access to a computer to check those records.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, certainly that will be communicated online for the benefit of those who are computer-literate. As far as the rest of the population is concerned, I took steps to identify how difficult it was for citizens to comply with this opportunity, although at this stage we are talking about tax returns that are coming right up to the margin. From the
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Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: My Lords, will it be in order for the noble Baroness who asked the Question and other Members of this House who still adhere to paper tax returns to deliver their returns to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs office in Whitehall?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, when I asked about the prevalence of offices, Her Majesty's Treasury had not struck me as the most obvious point of call. I would be loath to suggest that the noble Lord is seeking an additional privilege for Members of this House over the ordinary taxpayer. Probably he would have to move a little further up the road than Whitehall to comply with this request.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Unless, therefore, any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.
The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, today the House is being asked to approve revised guidance and explanatory notes for Refreshment Department functions as proposed by the Refreshment Committee and approved by the House Committee. The Refreshment Committee initiated its review to make the guidance clearer and to ensure that it stood comparison with the guidance in the House of Commons. The resulting guidance and explanatory notes are set out on page 4 of the House Committee report. The one significant difference from the existing guidance is that Members will not be able to sponsor promotional functions for companies in which they have a direct pecuniary interest.
I believe that the revised guidance is much clearer than the existing guidance and that Members will find the new explanatory notes helpful. Along with the policy of publishing details of all functions online as a matter of course, the guidance will result in a robust and transparent system in which both Members and the general public can have full confidence. I beg to move.
The First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Lord President of the Council (Lord Mandelson): My Lords, I wish to make a Statement about the decision of the Communication Workers Union to take national industrial action later this week.
No one is in doubt about the damage that such industrial action will cause, but those who advocate strike action have not been clear about why it is being threatened. The dispute at the Royal Mail is about modernisation, which has been the subject of localised strikes, particularly in London, for many months.
We know from the Hooper review on postal services about the company's need to change and reform in the face of a postal market being transformed as people switch to text, e-mail and direct debit, and as the growing area of mail, which is parcels, has a variety of alternative operators from which to choose. Royal Mail has to respond to the fact that 10 million fewer letters are being posted each day than three years ago and total mail volumes have fallen by a further 8 per cent in the first half of this year. In other words, if it stands still, this company faces terminal decline.
Following a previous national strike two years ago, in 2007, the union-the CWU-and management reached a national agreement on pay and modernisation. That agreement set a framework of four phases for bringing essential change to Royal Mail. The first three have
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Phase 4, the next phase of modernisation, is yet to be agreed in substance, rather than outline, and will be about a new framework for improving industrial relations. This will include introducing walk-sequencing machines to sort the postal delivery round and developing new business opportunities, along with a new system for rewarding employees.
In the majority of Royal Mail's workplaces, Phases 1 to 3 of the national agreement have been implemented without any local industrial action being mounted. Outdated working practices have been replaced and efficiency is being improved. But in other parts of the country, most notably in London, there has been repeated non-co-operation and industrial action to frustrate the agreement's implementation.
It is claimed by union representatives that in London management is unilaterally imposing change that goes beyond the 2007 agreement's first three phases. Management contests this, pointing out that London is being asked to accept only what everyone else in the country is delivering under the first three phases. These local disputes have now escalated into the threatened national strike.
I very much regret what is happening. Candidly, I think it is totally self-defeating for our postal services and those who work to deliver them. Taking industrial action will not resolve this dispute. It will serve only to drive more customers away from Royal Mail. In the delivery of parcels-where there would otherwise be a prospect of growth- Royal Mail's reputation for reliability could be irrevocably damaged, and in letters it will lead to a further twist in the downward spiral of mail volumes.
Business will be quick to recognise that while you can picket a delivery office to stop the service or refuse to deliver letters, you cannot picket the ever-present internet. Royal Mail's small business customers will look on with anger and exasperation. Just as there are signs of the economy recovering and the prospects for their businesses are improving, strikes now will set them back and put their businesses in jeopardy. Royal Mail's finances will be plunged into the red. Last year, the company, out of a £6.7 billion mail business turnover, made less than 1 per cent profit. One thing this company cannot afford is strikes and industrial action. Change in a big organisation is never easy, but for the Royal Mail it is unavoidable.
Let me make it clear that contrary to what some may say, the dispute is also not about pensions. The trustees are engaged in their periodic assessment of the pensions deficit and, lest there be any doubt, let me make it clear: the Government's policy on the pensions deficit will not be dictated by strike action. The Government were prepared to take on the pension deficit as part of a package of modernising measures set out in the Postal Services Bill. Sadly, the CWU did not support those proposals. When it comes to financing, the Government and the taxpayer have not held back.
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We are, of course, in frequent contact with both management and the union, and they have continued talking today. We strongly welcome that. Our message to them has been clear: put your customers first. Strikes are not the way to resolve differences or safeguard the future of our postal services. The Royal Mail needs management and unions to have a relentless focus on turning it into an efficient, modern postal company, protecting as many jobs as possible and providing customers with the services that they need. They should put behind them, once and for all, the endless cycle of disputes.
I will, of course, continue to encourage a settlement, but I cannot impose good industrial relations on the company or disinvent the internet. An independent third party may well be needed to help the two sides to resolve their differences. ACAS is engaged but we have to be realistic: it will be far easier for ACAS to play an effective role if the threat of a national strike is lifted.
The Government are ensuring that vital services to the public, especially those who are most vulnerable, are maintained. The Department for Work and Pensions will, if necessary, implement plans to ensure that the small minority of pensioners and others on benefits who still receive their cheques in the post will be able to pick them up from their nearest post office. If there were prolonged disruption, the Department of Health and NHS trusts would, if necessary, use alternative arrangements to transport appointment notifications, blood samples and test results.
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